Inside: Heritage Guitars
“A legacy of craftsmanship.”
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, at 225 Parsons Street, there is a piece of living history, but it may be difficult to see no matter how closely you look at it. It continues as an open secret, tended to by a loyal group of masters dedicated to preserving a century-old legacy, growing it slowly and steadily to prepare it for the next generation.
To paraphrase Founder Jim Deurloo, Heritage Guitars operates without much fanfare. For 35 years, they’ve been producing some of the finest hollow, semi-hollow, and solid body guitars in the world, always by hand, with world-class lutherie skill, and on seasoned machines calibrated for a singular purpose: authenticity.
We spoke with Deurloo and Masterbuilder Pete Farmer about the history of Heritage, the value of craftsmanship, and finding inspiration in unlikely places.
What is Heritage Guitars?
Since 1985, Heritage Guitar has been handcrafting some of the finest musical instruments in the world. Housed at the iconic 225 Parsons Street location in Kalamazoo, the company continues to build guitars of uncompromising quality as they have been for a century in that location.
The impressive Heritage lineup of hollow, semi-hollow, and solid body guitars combine classic design, modern touches, and only the finest materials, for an unparalleled quality, style and playability that is sought after by musicians around the world.
When and how did Heritage Guitars begin?
In the late 1800s, Orville Gibson arrived in Kalamazoo and began designing his own range of mandolins. Over time, his company grew and became known as one of the world’s premier musical instrument manufacturers. Some of the finest guitars were built at 225 Parsons Street from 1917 to 1984.
Several former employees wanted to continue the tradition of handcrafting beautiful, high-quality electric guitars in Kalamazoo. During the spring of 1985, they purchased space at the iconic factory along with its original guitar-making equipment. And with that, Heritage Guitars was born.
Our founders shared a wealth of guitar-building experience and an unwavering belief that every guitar should be as unique as the musician who plays it. It wasn’t long before people took notice and started bringing their stories to us — we introduced our first guitar at the 1985 NAMM show and haven’t looked back since.
Today, we are defined by our unwavering approach to American craftsmanship and innovation. Our Standard Collection is a favorite among players, while our Artisan Aged Collection appeals to those seeking a vintage look and feel for their guitar. The bespoke experience starts at our Custom Shop, where the most remarkable guitars ever seen are made to musicians' exact specifications.
Who started Heritage Guitars?
- - Jim Deurloo
- - Marv Lamb
- - JP Moats
Other long term Heritage Guitars staff member of note:
- - Rendall Wall
- - Jack French
- - Bruce Bolon
More from Jim Deurloo:
During the last years of Gibson in Kalamazoo, Bruce Bolon and I used to go to lunch, and we talked about what it would take to start a guitar company. In the summertime, we’d go to his boat at South Haven and brainstorm everything: from the lists of people we wanted, equipment we’d need, what products we want to make, and how much money it would take.
One Saturday, we went over to pick up JP Moats and Marv Lamb in our car on one of these boat trips. We were talking out loud about our dream guitar company, as you do. We asked the two of them if they wanted to be a part of it, and they said yes. It was really simple. Then, we decided we needed an electronics guy, which is how Tim Shaw came onboard. There wasn’t much fanfare at the time, and that’s how Heritage has always been.
In the background of all this, we knew that there were feasibility studies going on for Gibson and whether they wanted to be headquartered in Kalamazoo or Nashville. The last day of production for Gibson in Kalamazoo was June 30, 1984, and I was the one who closed the plant. It was a sad day, but Kalamazoo’s always been a resilient place, and the people are no different. Gibson offered Marv, JP, and I work in Nashville, but we didn’t want to do that because Kalamazoo was home. A small group of others who worked in the factory wanted to stay, and so we did.
So on April 1 1985, Heritage Guitar Inc. was born.
The first Heritage guitar was one that Marv designed and built, which was an H-140. It was a single cutaway, carved top solid body, short scale, two humbuckers, stopbar tailpiece, Tune-O-Matic, inlaid rosewood fingerboard. We then added a double-cutaway version of it. JP designed and we put together a Golden Eagle. It was a jazz guitar, top of the line, ebony fingerboard with cloud inlays, eagle sitting on the branch, multiple bound inlays in the bridge, inlays in the tailpiece. Top of the line then and still top of the line now.
We took those to Louisiana to the Summer NAMM show in New Orleans. Around the same time, we brought on Pete Laplaca as our sales and marketing guy, who had some band instruments and several other products, and he added us to his marketing basket. That was how we started our sales force, and for the first three years, we would come up with a new model every month. It was very much us throwing new model ideas against the wall to see what would stick.
One thing that people get wrong about Heritage is that we’re stuck in the past. We’re proud of our past, and keep refining our models and craftsmanship for the future. That was true thirty years ago, and it’s true now.
We tried banjos, mandolins, flattops, solidbodies. We enhanced the solidbody line with the H150. We started the double-cutaway H535. We had several solidbodies that included a Pbass, our version, single and dual pickup, long scale. Eventually, we settled on some core products, those were mainly the H150, H535, and JP designed a Sweet 16 and our H-575.
Those products were expanded upon. We had the H-555, which was an enhanced H-535. We had the H-157, which was an enhanced H-150. We had several versions of the carved top jazz guitars. We started the Super Eagle, Eagle Classic, and the Eagle, which was an all-mahogany version of the carved top. We had the H-575 mahogany, which was really a nice guitar: a mahogany rim, back and neck and spruce top with bound f-holes.
In 2016, Plaza Corp purchased our building and, a few years later, BandLab Technologies also came on board as a partner. We wanted to work with our new partners to take our company to the next level, in a sustainable way.
Heritage has always sold overseas, but most of that was very much through word-of-mouth. We used to sell a lot of guitars to the Japanese market, and to England and Germany as well.
For a while, we offered 33 models and 20 colors, and probably 30% of that was custom orders. We’ve since trimmed the Standard Collection to a more compact six models and four colors, which allows us to focus on delivering consistent quality.
Today, the kind of customer we want to create guitars for is someone who truly loves and appreciates the instrument. They can be from anywhere in the world. And we’re building our network of qualified dealers worldwide to help showcase our guitars to a wider audience.
Our thinking is always: if the customer likes the guitar model and the price and we can make it, let’s make it. So that’s where we are today.
How did you get started building guitars?
Pete Farmer, Masterbuilder:
I fell in love with guitars as a teenager. I learned how a truss rod worked early on and, at that point, started helping my friends and family with their guitars. I was fortunate to be introduced to some people who were knowledgeable on the subject and served as a safety net as I honed my skills.
Having a community around you is a great help because I could call them in case I got in over my head, which allowed me to take on more and more work, knowing that I had people I could rely on for advice. It helped me grow my skills much faster. These people also introduced me to the vintage guitar world and recommended different books and articles for me to study. I started to learn the subtle differences between the years and specs of different makes of guitars.
I continued to work independently for a number of years until my wife and I went to Heritage in the mid-90s. A friend of mine knew the owners, and I had a buddy who worked there at the time, so we went for a tour to see what it was all about. Soon after that, my phone rang and I was asked to come to Heritage to build guitars. The rest, as they say, is history.
What inspired you to begin and what inspires you to continue?
Pete Farmer, Masterbuilder:
There were a lot of different luthiers that I admired for their knowledge and abilities. One guy I can think of is Ross Teigen down in Florida. He had some interesting takes on guitars – non-traditional shapes and where every fret is accessible – so this was really eye-opening to me. It inspired me to create more and not be limited by vintage instruments. Obviously, I have a deep love of vintage instruments, but his instruments showed me there was more.
I’ve also always liked oddball guitars, Gretsches in particular. That’s visually inspiring. Always loved their styling, color, their knobs, and switches. Keeping the Heritage visual design while remixing it in subtle ways is something I like to think about.
Generally, I have a lot of friends in the industry, in all different facets. Some of them have become pretty dear friends of mine, and those conversations keep me inspired. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this industry and to be a part of the story down here in Kalamazoo, and the warmth of this community. After so many years, I’m still learning new things about guitars every day, and it’s why I’m still here.
How would you describe a Heritage guitar to someone new to the brand?
Premium, thoughtfully constructed, a legacy of craftsmanship. Needs to be played to be believed.
How is a Heritage guitar constructed from start to finish?
Pete Farmer, Masterbuilder:
We’re still largely a soft tool plant, and we make our own fixtures and tooling. We still use overarm pin routers, bandsaws, drill presses, and different sanding equipment to build our guitars.
We’re also very selective of our materials and take great care in sourcing what we believe to be the finest materials for our guitars.
The biggest thing that differentiates Heritage is there is a significant amount of handwork that needs to get done. We really rely on the skill and craftsmanship of the team here.
How long does it take to make a Heritage guitar from start to finish?
Pete Farmer, Masterbuilder:
For the Standard Collection, they’re team-built, it usually takes about three weeks from start to finish, with the majority of time spent in paint (curing, sanding, leveling, buffing).
For the custom guitars, it depends on the complexity of the guitar. It’s truly a considered and careful process to customize a guitar, and it’s a much smaller team, so things don’t happen quite as fast because we’re working on every detail for you. From start to finish, some take 3 to 4 months. Some take a lot longer. It just depends on the build schedule and complexity of the piece.
What inspires your creative process? What ideas and/or principles guide your design and construction?
Pete Farmer, Masterbuilder:
The designing and crafting of special instruments is my favorite thing. I love crafting special instruments, and the designs come from all over. I’ve always had a strong artistic background, so cohesiveness and design are important to me. I like to make complete pieces that look well thought out, well-conceived from top to bottom. Sometimes components like pickups, tuning keys, pickguard material spur ideas and designs as much as anything.
Of course, I’m also inspired by nature. Sometimes I’ll see brightly colored fish on the Discovery channel with color combinations that I love and I’ll try to figure out a way to work it into our guitars. Sometimes our custom shop customers come to me with their own ideas, which leads me down a road I haven’t been down in a while, or sometimes the idea is something I would have never thought of at all. That’s a gift.
Ideologically, what makes a Heritage a Heritage?
It’s such a unique company. There’s nothing really like it anywhere else. The continuation of the craft that was started here in Kalamazoo inspires us to go forward in evolving these classic designs into the future.
What is the spirit of Heritage Guitars?
American made, authenticity, a piece of living history moving into the future. Our unique factory at 225 Parsons Street and our location in Kalamazoo, Michigan. What makes a Heritage Guitar so special is that it’s not just about good quality materials – each guitar is crafted by hands with experience and eyes for detail.
When you walk around our factory floor, you won’t see machines that create perfectly cut copies of a long run of instruments. It’s a living and breathing guitar legacy.
Each guitar has its own feel. Each guitar is customized for the hands that will play it – from its shape to its finish. Today, with a warm, bright tone, each chord played on a Heritage is a postcard from beneath the iconic smokestack in Kalamazoo. We’re proud of where we’ve come from, and we’re proud of where we’re going.
What is Heritage’s mission?
To make homegrown, handcrafted guitars with heart. We craft premium musical instruments for the most passionate and discerning players. Heritage isn’t just our name, it’s our story, and it lives in everything we do.
Where does Heritage Guitars go from here?
The story of Heritage continues into the future, and it’s about preparing for the next generation of craftsmanship. Slow and steady has always been our modus operandi, so we’re incredibly excited about the next chapter of our story, and any expansion, whether with product or distribution, is carefully considered.
Whether that is training our people to continue the legacy of USA-built instruments or getting Heritage into more the hands of more appreciators and guitar lovers, we’re thinking about Heritage’s journey for the decades ahead.
Is there anything else you’d like for our customers to know about Heritage Guitars?
The annual pilgrimage to our factory, 225 Parsons, down in Kalamazoo takes place every year and is a great chance to see what happens day-to-day at our factory. Everyone’s invited. The support of our local community has been an important cornerstone for our success, so we welcome visitors to drop by to meet the team, the community, and to see what goes into making one of our incredible instruments.
From the very first shipment, we knew Heritage Guitars was something special. You see it and hear it, but you also feel it. You feel the connection between the hand of the builder and the hand of the player. You feel a guitar designed to be held, designed to be played, and in the response, you feel the sensitivity, keen energy, and nuanced expression that can only come from the human hand.
Shop the Heritage hollow, semi-hollow, and solid body guitars to see and hear what we mean. Purchase one to feel it.